Lot 65
  • 65

Jasper Johns

15,000,000 - 20,000,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Jasper Johns
  • Disappearance I
  • Signed J. Johns and dated 1960 and inscribed 'The Disappearance' #1 on the reverse
  • Encaustic and canvas collage on canvas
  • 40 by 40 in.
  • 101.6 by 101.6 cm
  • Painted in 1960. Please note that in the print catalogue for this sale, this lot appears as number 65T.


Leo Castelli Gallery, New York (LC # 145) 

Dr. and Mrs. Eugene A. Eisner, Scarsdale, New York (acquired from the above on October 24, 1961)

Private Collection, New York (acquired from the above circa 1980)

Robert Elkon Gallery, New York

Acquired from the above by A. Alfred Taubman in February 1982 


New York, Jewish Museum, Jasper Johns, February 16 - April 12, 1964, no. 48


Max Kozloff, Jasper Johns, New York, 1967, illustrated pl. 41 

Roberta Bernstein, Things the Mind Already Knows:  Jasper Johns' Paintings and Sculptures, 1954-1974 (Dissertation), Columbia University, 1975, fig. 139, illustrated p. 343 and listed p. 243

Michael Crichton, "A Brief History of the Work," Jasper Johns (exhibition catalogue), Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1977 (revised and expanded 1994 edition), discussed p. 34

Richard Francis, Jasper Johns, New York, 1984, discussed p. 62 

Roberta Bernstein, Jasper Johns' Paintings and Sculptures 1954-1974 - "The Changing Focus of the Eye," Ann Arbor, 1985, illustrated pl. 19 and discussed p. 43


Please contact the Contemporary Art Department at (212) 606-7254 for the condition report for this lot.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

“I think that one wants from painting a sense of life…One wants to be able to use all of one’s facilities, when one looks at a picture, or at least to be aware of all of one’s facilities in all aspects of one’s life… like we were saying a while ago, a surprise. You may have to choose how to respond and you may respond in a limited way, but you have been aware that you are alive” (Johns cited in exhibition catalogue, New York, Museum of Modern Art, Jasper Johns: A Retrospective, 1997p. 99).

A critical touchstone of Jasper Johns’ radically influential body of work, Disappearance I of 1960 is as beautiful as it is provocative in its profound candor. With every sumptuous inflection of paint, Disappearance I reveals a hushed accumulation of gestures—each stroke meets a dead end and a fresh start. In a career that spans more than a half century, works of this size and significance from this remarkable early period are notoriously rare as fundamental exemplars of the practice that would cause an emboldened revolution in the medium. Here, with a plane of raw, trimmed canvas collaged onto the surface, Johns’ painting is at its most explicitly self-referential, turning itself inward to reveal the machinations of its own making. While Johns initially proposed making four Disappearance paintings, the artist only completed two – the later Disappearance II is today in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in Toyama. Thoughtful, deliberate, and earth-shatteringly moving, we stand enraptured before the painting’s astonishing ambition, sensational clarity, and sobering gravity. The vehement motion of Johns’ brushstrokes impel a substantial spontaneity, however restrained by the square monochrome format. Each swoop of thick black, white, and gray that emerges from the surface’s flurry of activity ineffably and incontrovertibly confirms the artist's painterly genius.

In his ceaselessly inventive and remarkably challenging body of work, Johns has categorically distanced himself from interpretation; for him, a work should negate fixed meaning and elude facility of analysis. Exemplary of the artist’s perpetual variability within abstraction, the sensational drama of Disappearance I summarizes the artist’s pursuit toward pure literalness through an exceptionally sumptuous surface of gray encaustic. Throughout the early part of his career, Johns explored the artistic possibilities presented by the trinity of red, yellow and blue, complemented by glorious works that resound in one color; the fusion of both ends of the chromatic spectrum – gray. It is through the use of monochromatic gray that Johns achieves the ultimate act of negation and conclusively declares the ‘objectness’ of his paintings, here amplified by the stark materiality of the additional canvas construction which is mounted to the surface support. Formally, the painting’s execution echoes the use of canvas collage in the 1958 Tennyson, held in the collection of the Des Moines Art Center. Max Kozloff described the technique in terms of its tangibly emphasized objectivity: “Encouraged to penetrate behind the plane, the eye is shown that that plane is merely physical… Illusionism is devaluated, and abstraction is contradicted, by a device which reveals the inevitable artificiality of pictorial depth… In this instance, the front and back of a surface, verso and recto, are demonstrated to be, for all practical purposes, identical” (Max Kozloff, exhibition catalogue, The Art Institute of Chicago [and travelling], Jasper Johns: Gray, 2007, p. 49).

The central importance of the monochrome in Johns’ oeuvre was crystallized in the 2007 - 2008 exhibition Jasper Johns: Gray at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. As James Rondeau wrote in the catalogue: "Often [Johns’] preferences are made manifest through essentially additive processes… through strategies of accumulation, repetition, and quotation. ... At other times, effect is achieved through a more determined, subtractive process, distilled as a language of forms, gestures and objects in the absence of color" (exhibition catalogue, Art Institute of Chicago, Ibid., p. 23). Gray emerged as a protagonist in Johns’ exploration of neutral, self-contained abstractions with his first flags, targets, alphabets, and numbers between 1956 and 1959. What gray offered was a nonillusionistic uniformity—rendering the everyday consumer objects of a stretched canvas, a coat hanger and drawers in some of his first encaustic paintings advanced the literal quality of the works above all emotional provocations associated with color. Divested of color, the marks Johns made in his encaustic surface become even more profound, contrasting only in subtle tonal differences brought about by the variances in reflected light that catch the polished ground. This dichotomy between presentation and representation, between the Image and its Index, draws Johns’ viewer into the drama of the meaning of his paintings, lending them more physical and intellectual resonance. Johns’ assertion that the content of painting came from the paint itself and not the subject revolutionized the characteristically modernist understanding of painting for painting’s sake. 

Johns paints with encaustic, a method whereby pigment is dissolved in hot liquid wax that is then applied in strokes to the support; as explained by the artist: “I wanted to show what had gone before in a picture, and what was done after. But if you put on a heavy brushstroke in paint, and then add another stroke, the second stroke smears the first, unless the paint is dry. And paint takes too long to dry. I didn’t know what to do. Then someone suggested wax. It worked very well; as soon as the wax was cool I could put on another stroke and it would not alter the first” (Johns cited in Op. Cit., p. 30). Unlike oils, which can be easily mixed and reworked once applied, encaustic hardens rapidly and requires nimble movement of the brush—Johns swiped his brush in quick, discrete strokes that upon drying bear the conspicuous record of their own making. Strikingly palpable in the present work, his brushstrokes don’t blend—each retains a distinct tone, volume, and direction, while revealing the tonal complexity in the color gray through its riveting variation.

In the encrusted, heavily worked surface of Disappearance I, the viewer can indulge the eye and delight simply in the sheer beauty of Johns’ chosen medium. The characteristics of gray paint that were alluring to Johns are innumerable: its tone, variation, richness, and cohesion all provoked grand inspiration for the artist. While the present work may draw comparison to Malevich or Albers in Johns’ utilization of the monochromatic rectangular field, his painterly concerns align more closely with those of Robert Ryman—defying associations with conceptual art, his pictures rather are embroiled in the corporeal properties of the paint instead of the theoretical capitulations of such influential modernists. As articulated so precisely and wittily by the magnificent Disappearance I, Johns’ paintings do not stand in service to an idea—they stand in service to the surface.


By Isabelle L Wallace

Shortly after the extraordinary success of Jasper Johns first one-man show, held at Leo Castelli Gallery in the winter of 1958, the artist abandoned the style for which he had received acclaim.  From his inaugural paintings of flags, targets and numbers, all of which used commonplace symbols to reinforce the flatness of the picture plane, Johns turned, in the late 50s and early 60s, to wholly abstract, arguably morose, compositions that explore ideas of opacity, deception and loss.

A key work within this period, Disappearance I is both lively and restrained, its elegant gray palette a provocative foil for the gestural marks that both cover and animate its surface. In this respect, it recalls another important work from the period in which the majority of the canvas is obscured by something affixed to its surface: Shade, 1959. In the case of this earlier work, also a grayscale abstraction, what’s appended atop the canvas is a commercially manufactured window shade, pulled down, as if to obscure a view through the implied window beyond. In the case of Disappearance I, a second, superimposed piece of canvas obscures the view, and, extending Johns’ earlier meditations on the Renaissance concept of the painting-as-window, it is folded, suggesting the pleats of a roman shade, which, again, compromise the spectator’s vision.  In this respect, Shade and Disappearance I conjure two seemingly opposed conceptions of painting: on the one hand, the Renaissance view that painting is a vehicle for illusionism and a surface through which one sees and, on the other, the more modern view that painting is a medium at which one looks for expressive traces of the painter’s hand.

Interested in both of these ideas but wholly committed to neither, Johns’ oeuvre expresses an unrelenting skepticism about art—not only its ability to effectively represent a vivid, illusionistic view of the world, but also its capacity to faithfully communicate an artist’s ideas and emotions. In Johns’ earliest works—the flags, targets and numbers—he juxtaposed impersonal, commonplace motifs with paint handling that seemed expressive by contrast, and, in this way, he raised the question of whether those expressive marks were, in fact, expressive. In subsequent works, especially those that are devoid of subject matter and executed in encaustic, Johns focused attention on his brushwork, which is notably atomized and laid bare by his anachronistic choice of medium.

First used by Johns in the execution of Flag, 1954-5, encaustic is an ancient medium in which pigment is mixed with hot, quick-drying wax. This technique, which Johns has used throughout his extraordinary career, allows each mark to be preserved as the effect of a discrete, premeditated gesture. In early paintings like Disappearance I, it put significant pressure on the then-popular idea that gestural brushstrokes are the spontaneous record of a fast, impassioned process. Thus, the disappearance to which Johns testifies is not only the view of the natural world forever blocked by the painting’s drawn shade, but also the romantic, mid-twentieth century idea that abstract art provides immediate access to the artist’s psyche. Also at issue in Johns’ title is a disappearance of a more personal kind. In the final months of 1960, Johns’ relationship with artist Robert Rauschenberg was dissolving, and early in the winter of 1961, Rauschenberg moved out of the building on Front Street in lower Manhattan where both he and Johns had studios. At once personal and art-historical, the losses implied by Johns’ title, palette and composition are thus unique to Johns, even as they attest to significant shifts within the history of art.